Nosh­ing on the Main Bagels, smoked meat – and a lit­tle Leonard – in Mon­treal

A whirl­wind visit to Mon­treal gives Ar­lene Stacey a taste for its Jewish his­tory – and mem­o­ries of Leonard

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GROW­ING UP out­side of Toronto in the ’50s and ’60s, the clos­est I came to smoked meat was a soggy Won­der bread sand­wich filled with chewy Coorsh smoked meat boil-in-a-bag. A spe­cial treat, we thought at the time. Fifty years later, I’ve learned that was blas­phemy: real Mon­treal smoked meat has bite, flavour and leaves mem­o­ries that not all smoked meat is cre­ated equal.

I’m in Mon­treal for a food tour: a taste of Jewish Mon­treal. And as a Leonard Co­hen fan since I first read Beau­ti­ful Losers in the late ’60s (his sec­ond and last novel be­fore he be­gan a rather suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a singer-song­writer), I can’t be­lieve I’m in his home­town on the first an­niver­sary of his death – un­for­tu­nately, a few days too late for the star-stud­ded trib­ute con­cert, Tower of Song, which fea­tured artists such as Sting, k.d. lang and Elvis Costello pay­ing homage to Co­hen’s work, but ev­ery­one here is still talk­ing about it. And fans like me still visit Parc du Por­tu­gal across from his home off Saint-Lau­rent, where I’m look­ing at his house as I read the words to “Ti­tles” from his Book of Long­ing: “From a third-storey win­dow/above the Parc du Por­tu­gal/I’ve watched the snow/come down all day/As usual there’s no one here/There never is.” But there were peo­ple hold­ing vig­ils in that very park for sev­eral days af­ter his pass­ing. Even now, a year later, the words to “Hal­lelu­jah” are sten­cilled on the side­walk around Parc du Por­tu­gal. Some­one has al­tered the sign on the north-east cor­ner where rue Marie-Anne crosses Saint-Do­minique,post­ing“SoLong” above Marie-Anne and another be­low read­ing “And Leonard” – a ref­er­ence to the pass­ing of Mar­i­anne Ihlen, Leonard’s muse and in­spi­ra­tion for his fa­mous song, who passed away in 2016. Two blocks south is Kevin Ledo’s nine-storey-high mu­ral of the man, a cen­tre­piece of the fifth an­nual Mu­ral In­ter­na­tional Pub­lic Art Fes­ti­val – Leonard keep­ing a benev­o­lent eye on his neigh­bour­hood.

Co­hen’s deli of choice – the old­school Main Deli on Saint-Lau­rent just blocks from his home – sat­is­fied some of his crav­ings, and it’s our first stop for smoked meat. But it isn’t the smoked meat that blows me away: it’s the latkes. The big­gest, fat­test potato “pan­cakes” I’ve ever tasted. I ex­pect a good latke to be crispy, crunchy – but thick and al­most fluffy? Latkes are sim­ply grated pota­toes and onions, sea­soned with salt and pep­per, bound with egg be­fore be­ing fried in oil. But here, the latkes are truly over the top. Is it be­cause the recipe and the woman who makes them have not changed in more than 30 years? Or per­haps – the only hint I find in the recipe I re­quested – the latkes are fin­ished over a char­coal fire. Some­thing I can’t do at home.

The smoked meat at the Main is de­lec­ta­ble. But I had read Morde­cai Rich­ler’s take on the of­fer­ings at Schwartz’s across the street: a “mad­den­ing aphro­disiac.” So what’s the truth about Mon­treal’s smoked meat? And what is more Jewish – or more Mon­treal – than smoked meat, bagels and dill pick­les?

Let’s start with the pick­les. Zev Moses, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mu­seum of Jewish Mon­treal in the heart of the Plateau, takes us on a walk­ing tour down the Main, the spine of the city, which sym­bol­i­cally di­vides the city – English Protes­tants to the west, French Catholics to the east and im­mi­grants in be­tween: Eastern Euro­pean Jews, Chi­nese, Ital­ians, Arabs, Greeks and so many more, for more than a century. Along the way, he points out a 1920s build­ing with tiles along the fa­cade em­bla­zoned with a fleur-delis, a Scotch this­tle, a maple leaf, the Star of David – the pedi­gree of the city – and past the 1880s vaude­ville Yid­dish Globe Theatre, now Cinéma L’Amour, a porn house. We turn right and right again and into an al­ley, where Moses hands each of us a plastic-wrapped dill pickle. With Moses de­scrib­ing how im­mi­grants strug­gled upon their ar­rival in over­crowded con­di­tions in th­ese cold-wa­ter flats sur­round­ing us, we munch on his pickle of­fer­ing. He points to a six-foot-high fence bor­der­ing the al­ley, be­hind which Es­ther Witenoff started Mrs. Whyte’s pickle-mak­ing busi­ness in 1892 – the orig­i­nal brine kosher dill, the very pickle we’re crunch­ing down on as Moses con­tin­ues his story. I usu­ally pass on soggy dill pick­les, but the crisp­ness of this one – brined, not pick­led in vine­gar – sends tin­gles down my tongue and my sali­vary glands into over­time. Prob­a­bly why brined pick­les are a per­fect match with Mon­treal’s spicy smoked meat.

We’re back at the Mu­seum of Jewish Mon­treal, a small store­front space on the Main, which Moses started in 2010 to share the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ences in the com­mu­nity. The mu­seum of­fers ex­hibits, work­shops and cook­ing classes serv­ing mod­ern takes on Jewish flavours:

in­flu­ences from North African Jewish im­mi­grants with al­mond flour; Moroc­can cook­ies with car­damom and rose­wa­ter – pre­pared by The Wan­der­ing Chew (brain­child of Kat Ro­manov, Jewish food his­to­rian and di­rec­tor of food pro­gram­ming at the mu­seum). Taste the sam­ples on the counter, then vote on your favourite: gefilte fish club sand­wich ver­sus gefilte fish tacos. This is a mu­seum like no other.

Mélissa Si­mard, our city guide the next day, from Round Ta­ble Food Tours, has set the chal­lenge: de­fine what per­fec­tion means in a city that knows its smoked meat and its bagels. She pro­poses a throw­down of two of the city’s fa­mous smoked meat delis – Lester’s ver­sus Schwartz’s – and two of the best bagel bak­eries – St-Vi­a­teur ver­sus Fair­mount. The chal­lenge is on.

But first, let’s ex­plain: while New York City tries to bat­tle it out with Mon­treal on smoked meat, there’s not much of a fight. NYC’s pas­trami, a heav­ily fat-mar­bled cut from the navel end of the brisket, is dry-cured with sugar and salt, then sea­soned, smoked and steamed. Mon­treal’s vari­able-fat brisket is brined and cured with more pep­per and more savoury flavour­ings than its New York cousin – stuff like co­rian­der and mus­tard seeds – and a lot less sugar (and never pick­led), then hot smoked and steamed to per­fec­tion. But even in the city of Mon­treal, there are show­downs among the delis.

Lester’s Deli is our meet­ing place, and no one wants to leave. This 60-year-old in­sti­tu­tion could be a movie set: pho­tos of the Bea­tles among other celebri­ties, all of whom we have fun try­ing to iden­tify. It’s charm­ing and friendly, the kind of place you want to set­tle in and spend a few hours. Sy­bil Lester, who runs the deli, is the daugh­ter of the orig­i­nal Lester, and we’re told that Leonard Co­hen was a reg­u­lar. The smoked meat at Lester’s is juicy with a sharp bite, piled high on light seed­less rye and mouth-wa­ter­ing.

The chal­lenger: the fa­mous Schwartz’s, the Mon­treal He­brew Del­i­catessen, still serv­ing the recipe from 1928: 10-day cur­ing and the ef­fect of its 80-year-old brick smoke house. But the more-than-an-hour lineup to get inside is daunt­ing, so we hit the take-out side. The choices are the same as the restau­rant: lean, medium, medium-fat or fat. I choose medium but then I stay clas­sic and in­clude a half-sour pickle (not as crunchy as Mrs. Whyte’s) and a black cherry soda. Schwartz cuts its smoked meat against the grain, so it’s more crumbly than oth­ers, and the fizz of the soda against the bite of the smoked meat is de­lec­ta­ble.

As with the smoked meat, Mon­treal and NYC bat­tle it out like glad­i­a­tors over bagels, ever since they were first pop­u­lar­ized by Pol­ish im­mi­grants (Ashke­nazi Jews) in the early 20th century. As the web­site thril­ so elo­quently puts it: “Mon­treal bagels, on the whole, are slightly smaller than their Amer­i­can brethren, and thin­ner where the New York bagels are fat (kinda like the dif­fer­ence be­tween Cana­dian and Amer­i­can peo­ple).” But for Amer­i­cans, “Ac­cou­trements are king – and there’s just more room for them on a New York-style,” which are soft, chewy and doughy. While New York likes to smear on the schmear, crispy Mon­treal bagels, with eggs and honey in the dough, then boiled in honey wa­ter be­fore be­ing baked in a wood-fired oven, can be eaten out of hand as you walk the streets. No need of a schmear.

We hit the orig­i­nal St-Vi­a­teur Bagel Shop, a Mon­treal tra­di­tion since the 1950s. This small op­er­a­tion – the first lo­ca­tion – stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ever since one of its em­ploy­ees of­fered to stay un­til the last of the day’s bagels were sold. The en­tic­ing aroma of bagels bak­ing in a wood oven has you sali­vat­ing from the street, and inside it’s packed as you watch the bak­ers cut, form and boil the delecta­bles be­fore slid­ing them into the wood ovens.

Bagels in hand, we head out again to test St-Vi­a­teur against Fair­mount, another hand-rolled honey-wa­ter boiled bagel. Be­fore we even get to the bak­ery, the aroma of wood fire fills the air. As the first bagel bak­ery in Mon­treal, the Fair­mount opened in 1919 and, although it has changed lo­ca­tions, it is still small – like, re­ally small. Isadore Sh­laf­man ran the busi­ness on the ground floor, and he and his fam­ily lived up­stairs. To­day, I’m so full and the shop so crowded with cus­tomers, I wait out­side while my friends ven­ture in. The warm bagel they bring me is good – very, very good. Mélissa’s throw­down on bagels and smoked meat in Mon­treal is hugely chal­leng­ing – we couldn’t reach a con­sen­sus on ei­ther.

I’m em­bar­rassed to ad­mit that first night in Mon­treal, I sat in Leonard Co­hen’s usual spot at the Main Deli (sec­ond booth against the wall – just ask Anas­ta­sia Xe­mos, a server there for 23 years) and took my first selfie. But, worse than that, I would hate to ex­plain to him in the here­after why I brought home a pound of Lester’s in a vac­u­um­sealed bag and cooked it up for my part­ner. Served warm and slathered with yel­low mus­tard on seed­less rye bread, I could al­most con­vince him we were in Mon­treal.

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